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Third Circuit: Lack of Training for Jail Guards Bars Summary Judgment; $150,000 Settlement

Third Circuit: Lack of Training for Jail Guards Bars Summary Judgment; $150,000 Settlement

by Mark Wilson

On April 11, 2014, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that a jail’s failure to train guards in conflict de-escalation and intervention techniques precluded summary judgment on a failure-to-train claim. The case subsequently settled on remand.

New Jersey’s Cumberland County Correctional Facility (CCCF) “is considered a tough prison, due in large part to gang activity. At least four or five fights are seen and reported every day, and up to twenty or thirty are estimated to be unseen and unreported.”

Lawrence Thomas entered CCCF on June 4, 2008 on a shoplifting charge. He was classified as minimum security, but housed with minimum- and medium-security detainees.

Thomas quickly became known as a bully and a thief. On July 27, 2008, he stole someone’s food and was confronted by around twelve angry prisoners.

Newly-hired guards Fernando Martinez and James Wilde were working the unit during the altercation; neither had received conflict de-escalation or intervention training. They took no action to de-escalate or intervene in the argument, even though other prisoners later testified that it was obvious a fight was imminent.

“If you guys don’t fight or break it up, I’m going to lock everybody down,” Martinez declared. Everyone laughed, but they did not disperse.

Prisoner Leonardo Santiago then yelled at Thomas, “If you want to take stuff from people, come down here and take stuff from me.” Thomas headed towards Santiago as other prisoners yelled threats at him.

When Thomas allegedly approached aggressively, Santiago hit him. Another prisoner, Michael Cruz, then struck Thomas twice. Thomas suffered a concussion and lost sight in one eye.

He filed suit, alleging failure to protect claims against Martinez and Wilde and failure-to-train claims against Cumberland County. Thomas obtained an expert report from Dr. Richard Kiekbusch, a professor of criminology with more than 20 years of experience in correctional administration. He “found that the CCCF’s failure to provide training on de-escalation, intervention, and when to call for back-up” was “‘a careless and dangerous practice, and one which reflects a deliberate indifference to inmate health and safety.’”

The district court denied the defendants’ motion to exclude Kiekbusch’s testimony but granted summary judgment to Wilde and the county. It denied summary judgment to Martinez and the claims against him proceeded to trial. The jury ruled in his favor, “concluding that he was aware of the danger that Thomas faced, but was not willfully indifferent.”

Thomas appealed only the failure-to-train claim against the county. The Third Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment, concluding “that there are genuine issues of material fact as to whether the County exhibited deliberate indifference to the need for pre-service training in conflict de-escalation and intervention and whether the lack of such training bears a causal relationship to Thomas’s injuries.”

The case settled following remand, with the Cumberland County Board of Chosen Freeholders approving a $150,000 settlement, inclusive of Thomas’s attorney fees, on July 22, 2014. See: Thomas v. Cumberland County, 749 F.3d 217 (3d Cir. 2014).


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Related legal case

Thomas v. Cumberland County